“I Loved the Community of it”…A Conversation with Anne Mockridge
To mark the 40th anniversary of Toni’s Kitchen in 2022, we are doing a series of interviews with current and former volunteers, supporters, and friends of Toni’s to talk about the history and the future of Toni’s Kitchen. These interviews will be published throughout the year on our website at toniskitchen.org.
Anne Mockridge is a longtime parishioner of St. Luke’s Church, who was also a Toni’s Kitchen volunteer and Advisory Committee member for many years starting in the 1990’s. She shared her memories in a conversation with current volunteer and Advisory Committee member Al Prieto. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Al Prieto (AP): Welcome, and thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it.
Anne Mockridge (AM): Oh, Toni's Kitchen is important.
AP: How did you first become aware of Toni's Kitchen first of all?
AM: Well, I was going to St. Luke's church so I knew of it. Then I got more and more interested and was asked to be on the board. I'm a social worker with years of experience working with the underserved populations. I was asked to be on the Toni’s Kitchen’s Advisory Committee and I was elected to the Vestry of St. Luke’s which runs the business needs of the church. So I was able to be a liaison between and I just got more and more involved. I loved the community of it and the mission and it just works for me. I've worked with the similar population in medical settings of people with dire needs and few resources. TK grew and grew.
I was also on the personnel committee. We were looking for someone to run Toni's Kitchen and that part of St. Luke’s outreach ministry. We interviewed a lot of people and found Anne (Mernin), who was a real fit for the position. A variety of people came to talk about it, but she was really the one we wanted and has and continues to be.
She has grown and so have the outstanding group of volunteers to greatly expanding the ministry from there. It started small, there weren't that many people coming into it. Do you want the history of it?
AP: Yes, absolutely.
AM: A friend of mine was a member of a women’s study group at St. Luke’s who studied a book together during lent. They grew to be close and motivated to find a way to help others. (They) really felt at the end of their program that they particularly wanted to do something for somebody. They didn't know what to do, what they could do, what they knew how to do, then they heard of a place in Paterson that had a (soup) kitchen.
They went and saw it and were very impressed and took the model of serving the people, rather than people standing in line all the time, people coming to them and serving them with dignity and seeing them as guests, welcoming them and providing food without asking questions or proving their need. You want food, you get food. You don't have to qualify. That philosophy came from there and continues to be practiced. Giving without judging.
Toni (Green, the namesake of Toni’s Kitchen) had been the cook for the daycare center that had been upstairs in the church. She stayed on initially. It was all very, very, slowly developed and carefully developed by a very small group of people. They got food someplace in Newark and it grew from there, as they identified the needs and learned about this population and then a great influx of energy and creativity went in.
AP: The kitchen itself was where it is today, right? That's the same kitchen?
AM: It's the same kitchen, but we renovated it. Yes, actually, it was a very good design and I just met with the volunteers often and asked them, did they like this? Is there anything that could be different, changed and so forth? It obviously wasn't the original kitchen, because that was about the turn of the century, about 1900 when it was built, I think. The layout was good and the stainless-steel counters were to be saved and we managed to do that. It was brought up to code and a bathroom was added as well as storage for food and equipment.
It was done in stages. The first thing that was changed was because of a very awkward arrangement. If you were in the kitchen and talking to a guest who was standing in the dining room side of the wall you had to bend down and look up over a counter in a kind of window. It was very uncomfortable and an unnecessary barrier to engaging and equality. That was the first renovation, to get rid of that so that volunteers and guests could look straight at each other which allowed for a feeling of equality and connection. Other improvements were to meet sanitation and safety codes as well as food storage for refrigeration and shelf needs.
AP: I wanted to ask about takeaway (food) because that's a big part now. You have the meal and then you leave with a bag of takeaway food as well. That happened when you were there as well?
AM: Yes, it came out of trying to find balance. At one point we had a resource for wonderful Italian fresh-baked bread locally. The stores were trying to find their balance as to how much they should bake and sell as they developed their market. They over baked and we had huge quantities of bread donated. We were giving that out and rolls and cookies and all that kind of stuff. Then as we had other influxes, we had so many bananas around. Just cases and cases of bananas. That's more recent. Then we sent bananas out to the bakeries and they made banana bread and they gave it back us. Some of it was also balancing our need in our space and some of it was planned. We kept adapting and modifying the take away trying to improve on nutrition and what the guests would enjoy.
AP: I want to talk a little bit about either memories you may have, events that happened, or big moments in Toni's history when you were there. Anything stand out specifically about big events or big changes that happened or special moments for you?
AM: Probably the thing that I always remember most were the benefits (dinners) to raise money.
There were two benefit dinners one in 2006 and one in 2007. I co-led them. They brought in a supportive community who bought tickets and came to Toni's kitchen on a Saturday night. We had pictures and information about who we were serving and numbers and that kind of thing on construction paper and snapshots in the days before computers had taken over.
The public caught on to what we wanted them to know while enjoying wine and hors d'oeuvres. Then we went into the dining room. They were seated at the spread of tables that are there and it was a roaring party. People really liked it. Everything was fine. Then I got up and said, "You might be wondering who sat here at lunch today in the very chair you were in." I said, "Reach under the chair and you'll find an envelope, pasted there. Open it and read the enclosed and you'll know."
I had written 10 individual descriptions of a person who could have been in that chair and an explanation of what brought the person to a soup kitchen. Using common needs of many people who were there and what were their problems and so forth. It went from this loud, happy group to people, to people crying. They not only read about who had been in their chair but all the others as well, as they passed the descriptions around the whole table. It was painful and very powerful. Because Montclair is pretty affluent and seemly comfortable place to live, who would think that people in Montclair would have suffered like this? How could they have known it? How can they relate? What can they do about it? The following year I returned to these descriptions and reported how things had worked out for the individual. This was important as that is what happens in this dining room. Guests disappear for periods of time and they are missed. The tablemates may have information as to where the guest might be by reviewing the possibilities such as they got a job, or are hospitalized, or in a facility, or returned to overusing substances, or were seen recently on the streets all with an unspoken dread that they may have died. The volunteers and staff hope that the guests not being there means they have overcome some obstacle but don’t want to put too much into it as the chances are slim and disappointments frequent. There often is the hope that somehow that all will be well with our quests and won’t need us anymore as their life gets better.
Then I think the next benefit dinner they did was ’Toni's set to music’–like a Broadway show using obviously somebody else's music, but our lyrics. Then it went to one of the big clubs, The Women's Club or something with a broader group of people attracted to it as we were learning how to raise money.
AP: (What has been) the impact that you think Toni's has had in the community over the years and during your time there?
AM: I was struck during the worst of the COVID days. I drove by the church and I saw people that were really nicely dressed, obviously affluent, and coming from the best part of that residential area and carrying big bags. They needed the food. It has gone from obviously the poor, homeless on the streets to the broader community of people that normally didn't need any help at all. Food insecurity is always possible while relief is spotty and vital, Toni’s Kitchen is important and vital.
When people in different places in my life, ask me what church I go to and I'll say. “St. Luke's.” They'll just look at me and then they'll say, "Is that where Toni’s Kitchen is?" "Oh, yes.” “You are in that church?" The church gets a whole lot of draw for TK. It's been a godsend for us as well.
AP: What made Toni’s a special place for you?
AM: Because it was meeting the real needs, basic needs of people with dignity and the other basic need that we haven't mentioned, but it is really there, BELONGING. It has offered a way to reduce their isolation and by providing community, a place where they could feel a sense of belonging. The offer is for both the guests and the volunteers. For the guests it is things like acknowledging their birthday or just acknowledging that they had a name and in greeting them by name. Some of them had difficulty being with other people, but the majority of them seemed to have some obvious connection with each other at the table. There are a few that have cars that would bring others. It is a community meeting very deep need. For the volunteers a valuable place to meet and make friends with like-minded people while helping others.
AP: I saw that immediately when I (began volunteering). At the very first day when people would come in and sit down. They knew each other, they were friendly, they had built relationships and all of them, or many of them lived alone, homeless, as you say, but a lot of them they were–
AM: Lived alone. Isolated.
AP: Yes, and they were a group. They enjoyed each other's company and you could see they wanted to stay there as long as they could. You could see that they really liked being in the company of their colleagues and enjoying that camaraderie. It was really great to see.
AM: I think it's true of both groups. I think it provided a community that they belong to, they felt they belong to. That's true, for the volunteers as much as the guests. People are always looking to belong to a community like you were describing. It's a draw, not only to chop carrots but to see your friends there. Actually, I live in West Orange in a condo and a neighbor was asking if there was any volunteer work she could do and I put her and her husband into Toni's Kitchen. Her husband was the guy that was always at the sink, washing pots by the hour.
They’re still my neighbors and he is still the guy that comes over when there's a snowstorm or something happened to make sure I'm okay. People enjoy giving and helping.
(Editor’s note): Anne Mockridge talks about how the Toni’s Kitchen slogan, “More Than Soup,” came into being:
AM: I remember that we were thinking as a small group, we were planning, I think it was the 25th anniversary but that doesn't make sense. 20th or something and what we were going to call it? I said, "I don't know what would you call it, but it's more than soup," and that was the end, all I said but there was a writer there and he said, "That's it, you got it." I never would've known that I said that, but that certainly was the feeling. Just warm soup and welcome, and as much more as we can get for you.
AP: I thank you so much for your time.
AM: You're so welcome, it was a pleasure.